Helium, "Superball"

>> Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I don't know, I thought I was inspired enough by an item in Gawker to riff on helium, as in element number two, and how weird it is that we've spent the past century extracting this rare and limited terrestrial resource just so we can give it to small children as a disposable party favor and/or inhale it so we talk funny.

It interests me, and I think it's an interesting story, but I got about three paragraphs into a draft and realized I didn't necessarily have anything interesting to say about the story. I don't know if you've ever done that. You're thinking, "Oh, here's all these neat ideas and this interesting intersection of history and science... huh... that's all?

So instead, there's a video by Helium, the band. Which obviously isn't where I started, but it's something.

Helium, the gas, is interesting stuff. Nobody even knew it existed at all until a couple of years after the American Civil War, and even then all they knew about it was that it could be found in the Sun. Just before the turn of the Twentieth Century, somebody figured out you could find limited amounts of it on Earth embedded in natural gas and trapped in some radioactive ores; see, what happens is that helium, being an inert, low-density gas, zips right out of the Earth's atmosphere in a free gaseous state and hightails it for the infinite unknown reaches--the only thing lighter is hydrogen, but hydrogen typically has an incomplete electron shell, or (in layman's terms) is an atomic gold-digger that hitches itself to bigger, wealthier atoms all the time--oxygen, carbon, just about anything else. The only reason there's any helium to be found on Earth at all is that sometimes a decaying radioactive element will spit out an alpha particle--two protons and two neutrons, i.e. a helium nucleus and the helium nucleus then ends up getting trapped and not being able to fulfill its destiny until it's extracted and used to temporarily fill a Mylar envelope with Lordy, Lordy, Look Who Just Turned Forty stamped on one side; the balloon leaks and the helium goes, "Whee, whee, I'm freeeeee!" as it zips off to join all the helium that's out there in outer space, where there's tons of the stuff.

Helium, the band, recorded a couple of albums in the nineties and then broke up. The lead singer, Mary Timony, went solo and bounced around a bit before recently joining Wild Flag with a couple of Sleater-Kinney refugees. This is interesting to, but not really nearly as much as helium gas unless you're really into Indie Pop (to be fair, if you're into Indie Pop more than you're into physics, you can totally turn that sentence around if you want.) Helium was loud and strange with a definite garagey aesthetic to a lot of the recordings, which often sound like they were recorded in somebody's trailer (in a good way, though).

Just after the turn of the Twentieth Century, some Americans were the ones who discovered helium (the gas) reserves trapped in natural gas. The significance of this was that the United States had almost a monopoly on helium for much of the century.

This was something I first learned because I was obsessed with the Hindenburg disaster for a number of years when I was a kid. That's a common obsession, I know. But airships are pretty awesome, right? And you have to wonder why they never caught on, plus there's the whole mystery Rorschach thing about the disaster: because we don't know exactly why it blew up (okay, smartass, we know it was all the hydrogen inside it... and possibly the rocket fuel; I mean what started the fire, not why it burned so fast), we can all project whatever we want onto it. Paranoia and conspiracies your thing? Sure, could have been a bomb planted by a saboteur. Big on the symbolism of God/Nature knocking Man's hubris down a couple of pegs? You probably like the static electricity version. Sick sense of humor? Maybe you're picturing the guy who didn't pay any attention to the "No Smoking" signs. Spec Fic buff? Damn those occult-obsessed Nazis and their cthulhoid relics smuggled in the luggage compartment!

Anyway, people always wonder why the stupid Nazis didn't use helium if they were so smart, not realizing the Zeppelin Company designed the Hindenburg for helium but by the time construction was finished, the Nazis had taken over and while there was still trade between Germany and the United States, relations were strained and the U.S.--near-monopoly on helium, remember?--had decided helium was a strategic resource and we didn't need to be selling it to a bunch of stinking Nazis. (I mean, what if they used it to bomb England again? Wouldn't we feel stupid?) Anyway, that's why the Hindenburg floated on hydrogen, which is reactive with everything (boom!), instead of helium, which typically reacts with nothing.

(Also, I feel obligated to point out that while the Nazis slapped swastikas all over the Hindenburg, the chairman of the Zeppelin Company, Hugo Eckener, wasn't a Nazi and was, indeed, a dissident who mostly evaded arrest by being too well-known and too well-connected for the Nazis to just disappear. Indeed, the Hindenburg was named after one of Eckener's best-placed patron-protectors of the 1930s, and the naming was something of a "fuck you" to the Nazis, who unsuccessfully lobbied to have the giant flaming gasbag named after Adolf Hitler (in retrospect, more aptly).)

Only 36 people died when the Hindenburg blew up. Sorry if it sounds callous, but it isn't like Titanic, that other iconic 20th Century disaster, in which more than 1,500 people died. Or any number of air crashes since the Hindenburg burned, most of which are sadly forgettable and blur together in the brain. Three dozen people is a lot, but it wouldn't shock me if there'd been a freeway pile-up at some point that killed more people. What makes the Hindenburg so indelible, and this is kind of depressing in a way, is that it was such a spectacular disaster, the kind of thing you'd never forget a picture of if it killed one person or if it killed a thousand. (And yet, weirdly: if nobody had died, I don't think it would be as fixed, no more permanent a mental image than any number of test rockets disgorging fire on a launchpad. Odd?)

As far as I know, no one who ever unsuccessfully tried to book Helium (the band) for a gig ever burst into flames over New Jersey. Seems unlikely, though not impossible.


Mama Karen Tuesday, March 20, 2012 at 5:26:00 PM EDT  

I had other questions but I just looked at wikipedia. I live in an area pretty steeped in helium history, though, so yay for the post! :)

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